In stunning fashion, House Republican leaders on Thursday suddenly backed off a planned vote on an emergency border-funding package, meaning lawmakers may head home for the August recess without addressing the hot-button issue.
The legislation had been unlikely to advance in the Senate, and already had been ticketed for a presidential veto. But the decision to pull the $659 million measure represented a major embarrassment for Speaker John Boehner and his leadership team—especially for Rep. Steve Scalise. He does not officially become majority whip until Friday, but he and his new whip team had made this the first bill in which they had become actively engaged in vote-gathering.
"This situation shows the intense concern within our conference—and among the American people—about the need to ensure the security of our borders and the president's refusal to faithfully execute our laws," GOP leaders said in a joint statement after the votes were canceled.
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy said on the floor that it is "possible" that there will be votes later Thursday, reversing his office's earlier statement. House Republicans are having a closed-door meeting at 3 pm to figure out the next steps.
The decision to pull the bill from consideration came despite a carrot extended to reluctant conservatives to back the spending bill in exchange for a second vote later Thursday on a GOP measure to rein in Obama's discretionary authority to defer deportations.
That is something that hardliners, including Sen. Ted Cruz, have been insisting should be part of any border-crisis legislation, even though it is not directly related to the crisis.
If nothing else, the House passage of its own crisis funding bill was seen as giving House Republicans room to claim over the next weeks that they at least did something before their break to address the surge of tens of thousands of undocumented minors from Central America pouring into the U.S.—even if what was accomplished was a one-chamber bill.
But the measure is a far cry from the $3.7 billion request Obama gave to Congress earlier this month. The bill also provides significantly less than the $2.7 billion contained in a Senate bill to deal with the border crisis, which was also set to be voted on.
And in the end, Republican leaders apparently were unable to attract enough votes to feel assured of getting the measure passed—either with the support of their own members, or in some combination with Democrats, whose leaders had opposed it.
"We've got a caucus of widely disparate views and it never really gelled ... 218 on our side to support the bill," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers said.
Scalise and his incoming whip team felt confident Wednesday night and into Thursday that they had sufficient Republican votes to pass the border bill regardless of any Democratic support, and GOP leaders were prepared to move the bill to the floor for an early-afternoon vote.
"As of this afternoon the plan was still to move forward," said a senior GOP aide.
But around 1:45 p.m. lawmakers were alerted on their cell phones that the vote had been abruptly cancelled. No explanation was immediately offered, leaving dazed lawmakers to ask one another what had just happened.
Democrats, meanwhile, were giddy at the news of the Republican collapse. In the House basement, Colorado Rep. Jared Polis spotted an alert on his phone and hollered to a colleague: "You hear Speaker Cruz messed up their efforts over here again?"
Scalise's new whip team was privately blaming the opposition of Sen. Jeff Sessions , R-Ala., for causing last-second problems leading up the planned vote.
According to a member of the team, Scalise has told them the six Republicans of the Alabama delegation decided not to back the bill after being lobbied by Sessions. He has opposed the bill because it does not itself contain language to freeze Obama from expanding his unilateral deferrals.
Sessions also questioned last week on the Senate floor whether agencies involved in the crisis are really "in dire need of supplemental funding from this Congress." But mostly, said the member of the whip team, Sessions' opposition was to the lack of DACA language in the House supplemental bill. He was not satisfied with letting a separate vote occur on that issue.
Some Texas members of the delegation also were unsatisfied, said the whip member.
"We had it – we even had Justin Amash as one of the ones with us," said the member, referring to the Michigan Republican with a history of breaking with leadership.
"When Jeff Sessions came over here, it gummed everything up," he said.
"We didn't want to put it on the floor with just 215 votes," he said of the number they were at, because he said Democratic leaders would then get involved in trying to pressure members of their party from crossing over and providing the two or three additional votes needed.
Some outside conservative groups, like Heritage Action, also lobbied against the bill.
"The was the Scalise whip team's first big bill -- and having to rely on Democrats would not have engendered much confidence," said Dan Holler, a Heritage spokesman. "And what we hear is it became clear they needed Democratic votes."
That opposition was frustrating to the many Republican lawmakers who were eager to get something passed before recess.
"I think we'd be reckless for us to leave Washington without voting on this border security bill," said Republican Rep. Charlie Dent. "I say put the bill out on the floor for a vote. If it fails, it fails. And those who vote against it go home and explain it."
As for Scalise and McCarthy, Dent said: "It's not a great way to start, obviously, but I'm not blaming the new leadership."
Rep. Devin Nunes, a close ally of Speaker John Boehner, called the influence of Cruz and other foes "not helpful. ... It's just shocking to me that some of these guys want to turn over their voting cards to the senate or some of these outside groups."
But other Republicans dismissed the impact that Cruz, the Texas senator who hosted some House colleagues for pizza in his office last night, moved the needle on this vote.
Rep. Steve King of Iowa, the immigration hard-liner who has led the opposition to the border bill, attended the Cruz meeting last night and said the senator "listened more than he talked" and did not attempt to whip against the bill.
"He did not utter a word of opposition," King said.
Whatever the cause of the meltdown, the unexpected collapse had House leadership aides seething on Thursday afternoon. One senior Republican said "at least" 200 GOP lawmakers supported the bill, and added that members were "stunned" to see it pulled from the floor.
That left Boehner and his leadership team scrambling to pull together a 3 p.m. special conference meeting at the request of "pissed off" members who wanted to vent at colleagues, according to one senior GOP aide.
Meanwhile, the Senate has not yet set a vote time for its $3.57 billion supplemental for the border, Israel's Iron Dome and Western U.S. wildfires. But with news that the House may have pulled its bill, Democratic leaders are already predicting that the president will have to act on his own.
Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin suggested the president might move funds from elsewhere in the administration's budget to deal with the border crisis.
"The president is gonna have to respond to it and that means he's gonna have to try to martial the resources from other places," Durbin said. "That means cutting back spending in some other areas, so it won't be without some pain."
They're also pinning political blame on Republicans and suggesting that the GOP stymied the president and Senate Democrats' attempts to address the crisis.
"The president has tried to respond, in a humane, sensible legal way and sadly the House of Representatives is unable to get a majority to support that approach," Durbin said.
In the Senate, the Democrats are poised to block Republicans from offering amendments on the supplemental bill.
"Of course we want to go forward with a clean supplemental otherwise we're gonna get bogged down, unlikely to pass anything, and the House may just pick up and leave," Durbin added.
Senate Republicans are holding out for the chance to offer amendments. Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas said there will be a number of difference measures offered, but did not elaborate.
He also blamed President Obama for the House's failure to pass a supplemental.
"It doesn't help when there's no leadership at the White House," Cornyn said. "So as usual nothing happens."
The issue might resurface when the Senate returns in September, suggested Durbin, answering affirmatively when asked if lawmakers would consider the funding later.
This post is breaking and may be updated.
Sarah Mimms and Rachel Roubein contributed to this article.
(Image via Flickr user medilldc)